New York City, home to a
sizeable population of Jamaican emigrants, maintained a relatively low profile in the
reggae world until the 1980's. Then, the music's transition from roots to dancehall was
accompanied by explosive growth in New York's local reggae scene. In the Jamaican
tradition, this scene was centered around locally-run sound systems, and of these, the
sound now known as Downbeat the Ruler (originally called Downbeat International) has
proved to be the most enduring. Founded in the seventies by selector Tony Screw, Downbeat
rapidly became not only a regional force, but one that could compete with the strongest
sounds from Jamaica.
In the "rub-a-dub" era of the 1980's, sound systems were as much a showcase for
live performances as they were for records, and Downbeat ensured its success by regularly
featuring the best of Jamaica's microphone talent. Brigadier Jerry of Jah
Love Muzik was a
frequent visitor, and other top artists like Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin, Lone Ranger,
Nicodemus, Early B, Jim Brown, Johnny Osbourne, Ninjaman, Papa San, Professor Nuts and
more came to New York to perform for the sound. In addition to hosting these Jamaican
performers, Downbeat provided exposure for New York's local artists, some of whom went on
to achieve worldwide recognition. The core of the Downbeat crew included Shinehead, Louie
Ranking, Sister Carol, and Santa Ranking, and other locals like Mikey Jarrett, Alton Irie,
Reverend Badoo, Neville Valentine, and Brimstone would occasionally appear as well.
In addition to this large
and varied supply of top-ranking live performers, Downbeat was also known to possess a
deep box of "dubplates," exclusive recordings cut by artists for Downbeat alone
to play. Featuring custom-built lyrics proclaiming Downbeats dominance, these
dubplates served the sound well in sound clashes (face-offs in which opposing sound
systems exchange exclusive tunes and improvised lyrics in attempts to win crowd support).
Armed with its fearsome wax and sizeable host of artists, Downbeat successfully clashed
not only American competitors like African Love and Papa Moke, but also top sound systems
from Jamaica like Silverhawk, Black Scorpio, Volcano, and Stereo One, who would fly to New
York to battle the local champion.
In addition to this large and
varied supply of first-class live performers, Downbeat also had a deep box of
"dubplates," exclusive recordings cut by artists for Downbeat alone to play.
Featuring custom-built lyrics proclaiming Downbeat's dominance, these dubplates
served the sound well in "sound clashes," face-offs in which competing sound
systems would exchange exclusive tunes and improvised lyrics in order to win the favor of
the crowd. Armed with its fearsome record selection and sizable host of artists, Downbeat
successfully clashed not only American rivals like African Love and Papa Moke, but also
top sound systems from Jamaica like Silverhawk, Black Scorpio, Volcano, and Stereo One,
who would fly to New York to battle the local champion.
The arrival of the 1990's brought major change to the sound system world. In a development
pioneered in Jamaica by the mighty Stone Love, live
performances were replaced by a steady
stream of dubplates introduced by the sound's "selector," and the deejays once
so central to the sound systems became primarily recording artists. Downbeat, with its
potent dub box, was handsomely prepared for this new era, but did not entirely abandon its
foundation in live performances. Artists would still occasionally perform on the sound,
and in the mid-90's Downbeat held a series of dances featuring the former Stur Gav crew
and other foundation artists, including U Roy, Brigadier Jerry, Charlie Chaplin, Josey
Wales, Ranking Joe, Lone Ranger, Sugar Minott, and Pad Anthony, proving that these
veterans were still in fine performing form.
Today, after almost three decades in the business, Downbeat remains a force to be reckoned
with. The sound is traditionalist in its choice of artists and songs to voice, and does
not constantly chase the most-hyped "bashment" rhythm or artist-of-the-week.
Instead, Downbeat maintains what is quite possibly the deepest, heaviest collection of
exclusive foundation dubplates in the world, a record box only rivaled by a small handful
of other long-established sounds. Unlike so many other sounds from the past that have
fallen by the wayside, Downbeat still regularly holds dances, and occasionally flexes its
sizeable muscles in clashes. Nearly unmatched in longevity and might, there is no doubt
that Tony Screw and his sound have long since earned their title: Downbeat the Ruler.
© Michael Villet 2004